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Monday, January 23, 2006

Useful Advice.

This past Christmas I gave my diehard Republican father a book I thought he might "like." This book was, as you might guess, Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science. What can I say? I'm a son who wouldn't ever do anything to upset his father.

Okay, actually that's a lie. My entire career path is more or less a disappointment and/or source of unending horror for my father, so I suppose I may as well play the role to the hilt. If you're damned whatever you do, you may as well enjoy yourself, I always say.

In any case, Mooney spends a lot of time explaining why the Republican party has been systematically misrepresenting and corrupting the results of scientific research for political gain. This is all well and good, but it raises a question for me: do people normally get things right when it comes to science, even if they don't have an agenda? Sadly, I suspect the answer here is no- particularly since the science reporting in many newspapers is bad to abyssmal. So what is a scientist, nay, a budding public sociologist to do about things?

Well, as though on request, Ms. Shawn Neidorf, a graduate student at the University of Illinois- Chicago Department of Sociology, has provided an answer. This emerging scholar, a former reporter herself, saw fit to provide a sociology listserv with a set of recommendations for dealing with reporters. I was forwarded a copy by an interested party and, as I am quite impressed, I have decided to reproduce it here. As this was a relatively public list, I see no reason to be concerned about this, but if Ms. Neidorf should ask, I will be more than happy to remove it.

And so, without further delay, I turn matters over to Shawn Neidorf.

Be very aware of the press releases sent out concerning your work. Some university and journal press offices are very good at what they do, many aren't. Your conclusions may be oversold to attract attention. If your contribution to the field is mainly methodological, realize that that might not be what gets the attention in the press release. Try to see (and, ideally get control/veto power over) what is to be sent to the press representing your work.

Know whom you are dealing with--the reporter and publication. A quick look at the publication's Web site and a search of a news archive such as Lexis-Nexis will give you a sense of the person's work. There isn't, of course, always time to do this.

Ask a few questions of your own, including how the reporter found you and/or what interested him or her in your work. Ask (gently) about the nature of the story (e.g., "Could you tell me what this story is about?" ).This is not just to sniff out possible Sybils; it will help you frame your comments. If you aren't familiar with the publication, ask about its audience, too. Professional journalists will be happy to answer these questions. (You might not get a dissertation-length answer on the nature of the story--and keep in mind that the focus might change as the reporting takes place--but you should go into the interview with a sense of what's going on.)

Be prepared to talk to a reporter about your work by recognizing that all the caveats you put in your articles and books won't make it into the 400-word article the reporter has to finish by 5 p.m. Stress the caveats that are most important. Make a point of the distinction between correlation and cause-and-effect, especially if you think that is a source of confusion. Be able to competently and plainly answer in a sentence or two the questions "What does this mean?" and "To whom does this apply?" which can be questions about generalization.

Practice explaining your findings and their contribution to the field in a way that a reasonably intelligent person who has no background in your area of expertise would understand. It helps to actually envision such a person--a relative or neighbor, perhaps--someone outside the research world. Test your spiel on such a person and get him or her to paraphrase what you said--did that person "get" it? I often ran into academics who refused to do this kind of summarizing, seemingly because they thought it was beneath them and the quality of their work or because they thought it meant dumbing it down. But here's the thing: either you're going to help determine how the work is described in simple, jargon-free terms, or the reporter is going to do the best he or she can unassisted.

If the conversation with the reporter is going decently enough, but you can't be sure he or she "gets" it, politely ask him or her to tell you, in his or her own words, what you've been talking about. Put it on you--say you need to learn whether you're explaining this stuff clearly. That's the truth, and it might help you catch an embarrassing misinterpretation before it's too late.

Generally speaking, you can expect good reporters to be somewhat familiar with your work--they found you, after all. However, keep in mind that reporters don't always have the time/advanced notice or access to academic journals to read all your best work before calling you, especially if they anticipate rounds of phone tag. Don't be shy about suggesting things that you or others have written that will help reporters--as jacks and jills of all trades, they appreciate the guidance from specialists, as long as it's not given in a way that suggests they're idiots for not knowing all your literature. Post what you can of your work on your Web site and be willing to e-mail links and articles to journalists who seem willing to make a genuine effort. Keep in mind that even if your best stuff doesn't make it into this story, there's always the next one.

Finally, respect deadlines. When someone asks you to call back by 3, do it if you possibly can, even just to say you don't want to be interviewed. Deadlines are a brutal and unforgiving reality in journalism, and it really does drive reporters crazy when someone calls back DAYS later, ready to be interviewed for a story that already ran. Keep in mind that the earlier you call, the more time the reporter has to enhance his or her knowledge (e.g. by reading the stuff you sent) of the topic before writing the story.

I know some of you are thinking, "Well that's just great, but when am I going to be talking to a reporter?"

To this I only answer: Who knows? But wouldn't it be nice to be prepared if it should happen?

And people say I don't provide a public service.


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